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Childhood friend: Natalie Wood’s death was no accident

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Nothing’s been in Ed Canevari’s wallet as long as the photograph, now about 75 years old, of himself and Natalie Wood.

Canevari, the lifelong Santa Rosan who for decades operated the Lewis Road deli and ravioli palace that still bears his name, is not and never was a starstruck fan of Wood. They were friends.

Canevari, who’ll turn 80 on Thursday, was 4 when the future Hollywood A-list actress moved with her Russian-American family into a home on Humboldt Street, near Lewis Road. Her name then was Natasha Gurdin.

“She lived across the street from me,” said the compact and emphatic Canevari. “We played together. We were good friends.”

In 1943, the year the pals turned 5, Canevari watched Wood perform her first movie role: She dropped an ice cream cone on a Santa Rosa sidewalk as an extra in “Happy Land,” which starred Don Ameche and Frances Dee.

Wood and Canevari remained friends through their teens, even though her family moved to Southern California in 1946 after Irving Pichel, who directed “Happy Land,” offered her a role as Orson Welles’ adopted daughter in “Tomorrow is Forever.”

One year later, Wood melted hearts as little Susan Walker in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

For a number of years after the move to Southern California, Wood and her parents and siblings returned to Sonoma County each summer to relax alongside the Russian River at Camp Rose, just outside Healdsburg. Canevari said he’s always remembered how terrified his friend was of the water.

“She wouldn’t go to the river’s edge,” he said.

As teenagers, Canevari and Wood spent time together at Camp Rose, and a couple of times Canevari traveled to the southland to see Wood and her family. Wood didn’t get a big head or dump him as a friend as she became a star, he said.

At 17, she lit up the screen alongside James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Before age 25, she earned four Academy Award nominations.

She and Canevari both were 19 when she invited him to Scottsdale, Arizona, in late 1957. She was to be married, to actor Robert Wagner, then 27.

Canevari said with a shake of his head, “I can’t remember to this day why I couldn’t go.”

With Wood’s marriage and the upswing in her career that came with her 1961 leading roles with Warren Beatty in “Splendor in the Grass” and with Richard Beymer in “West Side Story,” the friendship of the former Santa Rosa kids came to show itself mostly in occasional notes and in Christmas cards.

The greatest shock of Canevari’s life came with a phone call in 1981 just after Thanksgiving. Wood’s older sister, Olga, told Canevari that Wood had drowned off Catalina Island.

News stories reported that Natalie Wood had somehow gone into the water from her and Wagner’s moored, 60-foot yacht, Splendour. The couple had spent the holiday on the boat with actor Christopher Walken, who’d been working with Wood in the science fiction film, “Brainstorm.”

Authorities described Wood’s death as an accident. Canevari recalls speaking by phone with Wood’s mother, Maria Gurdin, and telling her, “I don’t believe it.”

He’s never believed it. Canevari is heartened that Los Angeles County authorities have announced that they now view Wood’s death as suspicious and regard Wagner, who turned 88 on Saturday, as a person of interest.

“They should have done it 37 years ago,” he said. He added, “To be honest with you, I think it was a cover-up.”

Canevari is in complete agreement with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. John Corina, who told the CBS news program “48 Hours,” “She got in the water somehow, and I don’t think she got in the water by herself.”

Sheriff’s investigators said they have spoken with two new witnesses who corroborate recollections of the fourth person on the yacht, skipper Dennis Davern, who years ago said Wood went missing after a pitched, wine-fueled shouting match between her and Wagner.

The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement, “A witness provided details about hearing yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couple’s stateroom.

“Shortly afterwards, separate witnesses identified a man and a woman arguing on the back of the boat. The witnesses believed that the voices belonged to Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.”

It’s a mystery to Canevari why it has taken so long for authorities to focus publicly on the reports that angry exchanges aboard Splendour preceded Wood’s fatal entry into the water. He provided much assistance to author Suzanne Finstad, whose 2001 book, “Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood,” reported extensively on the shouting that preceded the deathly silence.

The book recounts Davern’s account of Wagner smashing a bottle of wine and accusing Walken of pursuing his wife. It quotes sheriff’s records as saying that one witness heard what he believed was Wagner and Wood “arguing or fighting,” and another heard a woman crying, “Somebody help me, I’m drowning.”

Wood’s body was found floating in a cove the following morning. She wore a nightgown, wool socks and a red, down-filled parka that had become quite heavy upon saturation.

About 100 yards away was Valiant, the dinghy that had been untied from Splendour.

Many people haven’t thought much about Natalie Wood since then, but not Ed Canevari. The black-and-white snapshot taken with the Mickey Mouse camera that his friend gave him on a return visit to Santa Rosa is a fixture in his wallet.

Canevari sometimes brings out the photo album full of pictures of Wood and him, and cards and newspaper clippings and other mementos. He pulled from it the Hollywood publicity photo on which the child actress wrote above her signature, “To my best friend, Edwin.”

Canevari has always believed that Wood deserves a serious effort to determine if her death was not an accident.

“She was a good person,” he said. To him, the news from Los Angeles is far more than a new chapter in an old Hollywood whodunit.